Update: The internet shutdown in Punjab was extended to March 21, 2023 (Tuesday) noon, as per a report by Business Standard.
Punjab residents have been living under an internet shutdown since March 18, 2023 noon. Worse still, the suspension of mobile services that was meant to go on for 24 hours since Saturday was extended to March 20 noon as per a report by the Indian Express. Digital rights groups on the internet have spoken out against this order, calling it a violation of Supreme Court guidelines regarding internet shutdowns.
Internet, SMS and dongle services suspended: As per the newspaper report, the shutdown was called amidst a crackdown on self-proclaimed Sikh preacher Amritpal Singh – who is on the run – and his associates. While the initial order from the state home department does not mention Singh specifically, it suspends “all mobile internet services (2G/3G/4G/5G/CDMA/GPRS), all SMS services (excluding banking and mobile recharge) and all dongle services provided on mobile networks, except voice calls.”
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Arbitrary reason for shutdown? As per the circular, Additional Chief Secretary (home department) said the order was issued due to “certain sections of society [that] are likely to threaten public order by incitement to violence” using social media like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.
However, as pointed out by the Internet Freedom Foundation, the order “refers to vague apprehensions and speculations, without containing any particulars or details.” As per the apex court’s guidelines, internet shutdown orders require reasons for the suspension.
“Such a templatised order indicates a level of automation in the administrative process for ordering internet shutdowns,” said the IFF.
But this order merely refers to vague apprehensions and speculations, without containing any particulars
or details. Such a templatised order indicates a level of automation in the administrative process for ordering
internet shutdowns. 3/4
— Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) (@internetfreedom) March 18, 2023
Similarly, the Software Freedom Law Centre.in (SFLC.in) argued that shutting down the Internet for an entire state is not a proportionate exercise of statutory power and goes against the judgment of the Anuradha Bhasin v UoI. Supreme Court judgement.
“There’s no data to back up the claims used by police authorities as world over protests happen without deprivation of communications,” said the SFLC in a tweet. In related tweets, it talked about having filed an RTI into such shutdowns. Punjab has witnessed 46 internet shutdowns since 2012, as per SFLC data.
#Punjab has witnessed 46 shutdowns since 2012. However, such a vague, undefined and expansive shutdown which stretches across the entire state is a rarity and @SFLCin has filed an RTI to dig more about the issue and track it thoroughly.https://t.co/fE5YSMeuxf
— sflc.in (@SFLCin) March 19, 2023
Why it matters: Suspension of the Internet is, at the end of the day, a violation of people’s right to free speech. Multiple times in the court, the judiciary has reminded the government that shutdowns are not arbitrary tools to use for prevention of cheating in exams or suspected criminal activity but for clear and specific reasons. Despite this, Internet shutdowns in the name of ‘preventing cheating’ or ‘maintaining law and order’ continue. In fact, India has been ranking the highest in terms of internet shutdowns for five years globally. This is a gross violation of human rights. People have a right to ask and criticize such moves that can significantly hinder everyday life. For example, what if someone had to pay their electricity bill and could not do so due to the sudden internet shutdown? Is it fair that an entire family has to live in the dark because the police suspects possible danger online?
Note: This story was updated at 6:48 PM on March 20, 2023 to reflect the latest developments in Punjab.
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